Sunday, September 16, 2007

Concerning the Spiritual in Photography

"The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning, or, in embryonic form ... provides and will provide the soil in which a kind of monumental work of art must come to fashion," so prophesied the great Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, in his masterful Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1914. Since then, of course, and to varying degrees, art has been replete with many aspects of the spiritual; indeed, the traditionally religious-centric interpretation of the term has on occasion been considerably expanded by art to include mysticism, ritual and myth, symbolism, the occult, and pure abstraction. A wonderful book - The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 - that chronicles much of the history of spiritual art, and contains many wonderful reproductions of important works, was published in 1985 to highlight an exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A recent Dover reprint of another classic survey - The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art - is also available; though it has only a relatively few black and white examples, the scholarship is first-rate.

The impact of the "spiritual" on photography is less clear, and has - sadly - less of a clear history. To be sure, the spiritual has never been far from photography's best practitioners; though not necessarily in overt form. Alfred Steiglitz's "Equivalents" are nothing if not quiet, soulful expressions of an inner reality, and are obviously infused with spirit in the deepest sense. Ansel Adam's portfolio of ostensibly "grand sweeping vistas" filled with Wagnerian-scale drama, are both creative affirmations of everything that is beautiful "out there," beyond the artist behind the lens, and of the poetic soul yearning desperately for a way to better communicate the transcendent beauty it sees on the inside. Adams' quest was a quintessentially spiritual one, much more so than merely aesthetic; a quest that is, regrettably (and profoundly erroneously, in my view), all-too-quickly dismissed by some latter day photographers as a product of "vision-less" Zone-system technobable and attention to irrelevant minutiae of craft. Many of Minor White's best works can be compared to those of Kandinsky, in the sense that both artists (used their respective media to) point a way toward a radically new grammar for spiritual expression. And Carl Chiarenza's visionary explorations of the "inner landscape" have been available for all to "see" for decades.

Still more recently, I've encountered the works of spiritually inclined artists such as Doug Beasley, Nicholas Hlobeczy, John Daido Loori, Deborah Dewit Marchant, and Jerry Wolfe, who each in their own way, pay homage to the spirit of Steiglitz's equivalents, and use their photography to reveal otherwise invisible realms of the soul. (Not surprisingly, Hlobeczy, Loori, and Wolfe all worked with Minor White.)

But, though there are plenty of other contemporary photographer / artists whose work is very spiritual in nature, there is little evidence to suggest that "spiritual photography" (at least in the sense I mean here) is emerging - or has ever emerged, for that matter! - as a bona-fide movement in photography. Indeed, if books such as reGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow (published, ironically, by Aperture, a magazine founded by Minor White and Ansel Adams!) are true indicators of the direction in which photography is currently "moving," that direction is visibly leading away from, rather than anywhere near, spirit. Deliberately staged images that shock and pound the senses into a surrealistic (and often numbingly ugly) unreality seem to be the norm; pictures that invite a quiet meditation or that simply, but sincerely, ask, "Is this not beautiful?" are rarely seen today - and when they do appear, are routinely scorned by critics as unimportant "pretty pictures" that convey no lasting meaning. (Christopher Alexander has been lamenting a similar spiritual decline in architecture and urban planning for a quarter century.) I hope I am wrong, for to move away from spiritual expression is, in my opinion, to move away from the most meaningful connection we have to the spiritual world - which is our essential wellspring of existence - as physical beings. Severing this connection, even if only implicitly by focusing our collective artistic / photographic energies onto more "sterile" - and spiritually inert - aspects of the world, means we must face the specter of losing ourselves in (or devolving backwards to) the merely physical.

For me, photography, or any other creative art form for that matter, is first and foremost a language of the transcendent; it represents a way for gifted "seers" - otherwise known as "artists" - to remind the rest of us that none of us are merely creatures of the flesh.


Anonymous said...

I just came across your blog. I'm linking you up. Thanks. You're inspiring. :)

mike c said...

Just wanted to say thanks for all the kind words you left on my blog!

Also, I love the abstract black and whites! It's one of my favorite subjects that my eye hasn't learned to see in the moment yet. Great work! I think I'll add a link as well :-)

Anonymous said...

Really beautiful images. Your RSS is in my reader for sure. A little over-anlysis in this post. The images are beautiful and speak for themselves without the words. Maybe the success of all photography (& all art and visual media), is that it can be understood by those who don't see the physical and the spiritual as being all that separate.

Andy Ilachinski said...


Thanks for the kind words about the images...but the point of my post was really to convey a point of view with a short essay; the images were included only as (hopefully somewhat related) compliments to the central theme. Thanks for looking (and reading! ;-)

Unknown said...

WOW - Great Blog!!!!

PEace ~ John

Anonymous said...

once i was walking around san francisco at night, taking photographs.

there was a building under construction, covered in fabric (so debris wouldn't go flying into the street and kill bicyclists), and there were lights inside - probably lights for people working inside. the shadows that the lights cast against the fabric made for some interesting patterns.

i stopped to take a photo, of course.

a girl stopped, looked for a second to see what i was photographing, then said, "oh, wow. that's gorgeous, i wouldn't have noticed."

obviously it's a fond memory.

here's the photo:


-kar- said...

I believe photography is very spiritual. Each photo produced, is a reflection of self. The title of each photo that I gave to it, or theme in mind before I press the shutter is about my emotion, my own level of awareness and realisations. There are time when I have "ahaaa..." moment.


trace said...

Andy, well said as usual! I believe that what passes for the current "trend" in photography is of momentary significance (if that). The spiritual is/was/always will be infused in the medium.
As to "critics", well, that's just someone with an opinion, and the easiest job in the world is that of a critic.

I also believe if we want a change or movement towards something, establishment be damned! Let US make the work and the support system to encourage the greater meaning of photography. You are doing that with this blog and your work. John Paul Caponigro is doing it. Brooks Jensen is doing it. Many others as well.
You should hear Graham Nash and Marc Holbert (of Nash Editions) talk about the early days of trying to legitimize fine art inkjet printing to galleries and museums. Not to mention from other photographers who even literally spit on them (well, Mac anyway) for what they were doing.

Kandinsky is right (wonderful book BTW). Interesting his book was written just before the outbreak of WW I.

Maciej said...

Thanks for a brilliant blog post. I wish the spiritual aspect of photography would be more acknowledged. It is an important aspect of my own landscape photography, but I also recognise it in photos taken by others.